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UN Malaysia Public Lecture Shines Spotlight On Gender Impacts Of The Global Financial Crisis

11 May 2009, Kuala Lumpur – Women and children are expected to shoulder the brunt of the socioeconomic fallouts from the unfolding global financial crisis in Asia, amidst plummeting export demand, rising unemployment and depressed growth.

According to Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, women are more likely than men to be in vulnerable jobs, to be under-employed or without a job, lack social protection, and to have limited access to and control over economic and financial resources. Dr. Heyzer was in Kuala Lumpur to deliver a public lecture, titled, “Impact of the Financial and Economic Crisis on Women and Families“ organized by the United Nations in Malaysia.

In his Introductory Remarks, Kamal Malhotra, UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam said, "Today’s event is held in conjunction with the 15th Anniversary of the International Day of Families, which is observed globally to promote the inherent strengths of families and their value to society.  This year’s theme, “Mothers and Families: Challenges in a Changing World,” reminds us that the crisis should not just be viewed in terms of numbers and percentages, but must prioritize its human face and impact, especially on women and children."

Mr. Malhotra said the UN remains committed to making gender equality a reality, not only because it a moral imperative, but because it would promote the prosperity and well-being of all.  "The relative status of women and men, the interaction between gender and race, class and ethnicity, and questions of rights, control, ownership, power and voice – all these have a critical impact on the success and sustainability of every development intervention."  
 
“If there is one lesson learnt from past crises it is that the poor, women and children who are hit hardest hit in economic downturns and take the longest to recover, as recovery in real wages and employment take much longer than recovery in GDP,” she said, warning that the coping mechanisms of poor households including pulling children out of school, cutting down on meals, and postponing health-related expenditure such as observed during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98 could jeopardize income-earning potential for current and future generations.

As the world economy slips into deeper recession, major export-oriented industries in the region dependent on US and European markets have already felt the economic crunch. Women dominate the workforces of low-skilled, labour-intensive exports such as garments, textiles and electronics at a ratio of 2- 5 female workers for every male worker, according to a study conducted by the International Labour Organisation. Their preponderance in these manufacturing industries means women are experiencing the first blows of job cuts. In Malaysia, the female workforce by industry is concentrated in manufacturing (22.2%), wholesale, retail trade, hotels and restaurants (24.6%), and services (38.6%).

Like many of its regional neighbours, the effects of the global crisis on Malaysia began to be tangibly felt from October 2008 when industrial production first contracted and exports fell. As a result, GDP growth abruptly declined to 0.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2008. Exports, the economy’s lifeblood, contracted by 14.9 per cent in December 2008 and by 28.3 per cent in January 2009, compared with the same month in 2007.

The industrial production index fell by approximately 20 percent in January 2009, with the manufacturing, mining and electronics sectors recording a 26.7 per cent, 6.1 per cent and 12.4 per cent decline respectively. The government has now revised its projected GDP growth rate to between a positive one percent and negative one percent for 2009, a significant downgrade from its previous 4th Quarter 2008 forecast of a positive 3.5 percent. 
 
ESCAP estimates that the most widespread negative impact could be in export-oriented countries in the Asia-Pacific region which has one of the highest ratios of women of working age. And, among working women, about 65 percent are in vulnerable employment, largely in the region's informal sector. Women still constitute the majority of temporary, casual, seasonal and contract labourers, and low-skilled workers. Many of them have no benefits - such as maternity leave and pensions - or job security, and are at great risk of falling into poverty.

“Lacking education and skills, they tend to be less mobile across sectors than better educated workers. As women represent a large proportion of the workers in the informal economy, their poverty deepens when formal sector workers switch to the informal economy during crises, as it depresses the wages of the informal economy,” Dr. Heyzer added.

Women workers are also often regarded as a flexible reserve, to be drawn into the labour market in upturns and expelled in downturns. During normal economic times, the flexible workforce experiences high job turnover, moving from one factory or production workshop to another, or shifting between formal sector and informal activity. Thus, during economic downturns and recessions, they are most likely the first lose their jobs.

Dr. Heyzer said that women typically faced a double burden during difficult times as families cut down on spending, as they take on additional non-paid household responsibilities such as caring for the sick, elderly and the extended family, in addition to their regular jobs. 

“Aside from increased income insecurity and deepening poverty, history has shown that when societies are in danger of collapse, for example, during severe economic turmoil as experienced by some Asian countries in 1997, there is evidence of significant rises in suicide and crime rates, abuse and violence against women, and ethnic tensions.  Women bear the brunt of these social fallouts.”  
 
Yang Berbahagia Datuk Dr. Noorul Ainur Mohd Nur, Director General, Department for Women's Development, who read the text of the speech on behalf of the  Dato' Sri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, said that various measures had been undertaken by the Ministry to protect women during these difficult economic times, including providing skills training and capacity building through outreach programmes. 

In highlighting policy recommendations to ease the disproportionate burden on women during periods of economic crises, Dr. Heyzer said that more could be done to protect social spending, support microcredit lending, which is regarded as a lifeline for poor women in developing countries, and increase investments in agriculture.

She also suggested that fiscal stimulus packages could be “engendered,” such as by enlarging the scope of public work programmes that are currently being implemented to include social services such as health, education, and agricultural extension services which could boost employment opportunities for women.

“While social progress could be served by economic progress, the reverse is equally true–economic growth could be spurred on by advances in social policy. This should be pursued with even more vigour today, as countries search for new economic growth drivers. Addressing discrimination against women is simply “smart economics”.

The event was attended by over 200 guests from government, academia, the private sector, civil society and the media and ended with a lively question and answer.

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